The first crack in the Iron Curtain, Solidarność of Gdańsk

“How many divisions does the Pope have?” was the brusque reply by Stalin, when told by Winston Churchill to consider the opinions of the Vatican.

He did not live to see the answer.

Pope John Paul II’s first trip to Poland was a triumph. Millions attended his masses and were invigorated by his homilies. He asked for a new spirit (Holy Spirit) to descend on the people of Poland, when he was in Krakow.

Then he went to Gdańsk, and conducted mass in a park in the Zaspa residential district.

Preaching on the topic of human and christian solidarity. There was no direct correlation with trade unions, but his homilies gave ammunition to the civilians and armed them with a courage.

He arrived into a broken nation and left it inspired and invigorated.

In August 1980, a shipyard worker called Anna Walentynowicz was fired from her job.

Walentynowicz was a social activist and was involved in political activity while a worker, that was the grounds on which she was fired (participation in an illegal workers union). Her firing sparked wide-scale protests with over a million people galvanised to join in.

Led by Lech Walesa, the group demanded that Walentynowicz be returned to her post and remarkable, after three days the authorities agreed to their demands. While Walesa was ready to return to work, Walentynowicz convinced him and the rest that the strike could not just be a simple bread and butter issue but a larger societal one. Walentynowicz and another colleague Alina Pienkowska locked the gates of the shipyard and persuaded the strikers to stay on in the shipyard.

The workers locked themselves in the shipyard and demanded the right to independent trade unions free of government control. Government propaganda portrayed them however as trouble makers. It did not matter that the outside world knew, as long as the people did not.

To combat that, the workers hung two boards with 21 demands outside of Shipyard Gate Number 2.

The wooden boards drew attention and public opinion soon turned to support the workers. The government decided that they had to negotiate with the protestors and promised no reprisal for discussion. An agreement was reached on 17th September 1980, and the independent trade union Solidarity was formed.

Within 1 year, Solidarity had almost 10 million members, more than a quarter the entire population of Poland. The leader of the government Stanislaw Kania was replaced by a General Wojciech Jaruzelski and pressure was applied on him by the Russian (on threat of direct intervention from the North) to suppress Solidarity.

Jaruzelski declared martial law in 1981  to try to stop pro-democratic elements in the country.

His term of presidency (of the Worker’s Party) was also a time of worsening conditions in the country. Solidarity was suppressed,

and the leaders of the movement were put in jail.

But when a movement grows, the more matyrs there are the stronger the faith of the people. That’s how the catholic church grew, and in a nation of staunch catholics the parallels were uncanny. The underground resistance continued to grow and strengthen with illegal printing presses and the like sprouting to combat communist propaganda. Throughout this time, the opposition was supported by the US CIA and the Vatican (under Pope John Paul II).

The state continued to collapse and in 1988, the economy tanked completed forcing the government to enter into negotiations with the opposition. An agreement was made for semi-free elections to be held.

And unsurprsingly, Solidarity won.

This was the first trade union and also the first democratically elected government behind the Iron Curtain, with Lech Walesa as President. The vital crack was made in the Iron Curtain. There was no turning back.

And it all began in this shipyard, today a museum run by the EU.



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